Independent Inquiry: Book Tower

In its fifth year of iteration, Independent Inquiry continues to be a project that defies traditional logic and rewards all involved with inspiration and enjoyment of learning.

This afternoon, three students had arranged to stay after school with a simple inquiry goal: To build a tower out of books in our classroom library.

This was a follow up to a previous project of using books to make a giant domino chain.

Today was special because they utterly failed. Eventually, they did manage to build something, but not without overcoming a dozen obstacles along the way.

They were frustrated by the different sizes and stiffness of the books as building materials.

Working on different sides of the tower, after it collapsed, they lamented that they hadn’t been communicating or comparing each others’ techniques to ensure stability. The constant flow of analysis and synthesis that followed astounded me and distracted me from the after school program recommendations I was trying to complete before leaving for the evening.

When all of the classroom books were used, and the tower was significantly smaller than they had expected, an ethical debate ensued in which they determined that other students wouldn’t mind borrowing their books as long as they were properly returned.

I chuckled silently throughout the project and marveled at the vast breadth and depth of learning they achieved with only an idea, a pile of books, and each other.

Maker Club year 1

One year ago, I started a Maker Club at my school as part of our after school program. While maker spaces for older learners generally focus on robotics and digital creation, I believe that an elementary maker experience should start from concrete, physical creation. Most of our materials were donated by families, but we also frequently raid the school art supplies.

Based on my participation in the Learning Creative Learning MOOC in 2013, the initial guiding principles for our Maker Club were Independence and Social Creativity.

Independence

It’s critical that Maker Club have no assignments. The only requirement is to always be ‘making’. Imagining, researching, designing, sharing, and reflecting are all parts of the making process.

Maker Faire often includes digital production, as well as arts and crafts, engineering and construction, cooking, scientific experiments and demonstrations, and the visual and performing arts. There are no artificial limits.

For the first few meetings, there was a refrain of ‘What should I make?’, ‘What do you want to make?’. This dialog is indicative of empowerment. As young makers realize that they are in control of their learning in their maker space, their creativity is ignited.

In a sense, this is what makes a maker space. Of course, maker tools and materials are important, but most important is fostering an environment in which everyone feels safe to experiment and create.

Every maker must be encouraged to try anything, and indeed, ‘makes’ that fail are not failures at all. Failures are courageous learning experiences and opportunities to safely practice a growth mindset.

Social Creativity

Social Creativity is the notion that creativity is a social activity. Innovation by adapting existing ideas, sharing, cooperating, and collaborating respects the idea that creation is an act of communication.

Every week, we update a Maker Club Projects spreadsheet that both serves to document our activities and as an archive to inspire innovation and collaboration.

The framework for assessment in our Maker Club is from The Tinkering Studio’s Design, Make, Play and consists of the the criteria of Engagement, Intentionality, Innovation, and Solidarity. This rubric emphasizes process over product and social interaction over individual achievement. These principles guide me in my role as facilitator in coaching young makers.


Play, passion, projects, peers

The most recent iteration of the Learning Creative Learning MOOC introduced the ‘4 Ps’ of play, passion, projects, and peers. Mitchell Resnick also introduced the Creative Learning Spiral, which became the inquiry model for our Maker Club.


This model is exceptionally effect for maintaining makers’ momentum.


Gallery

Please enjoy these photos of various works in progress. All photos by Bart Miller (CC BY 4.0).

One ambitious maker, inspired by a Maker Faire video, attempted to convert her bicycle into a cupcake. The project proved to be too complex for the scope of our once per week club, but she did manage to complete a ‘cherry on top’ helmet.


A pair of makers surprised me with an impromptu hand puppet show!


One of my favorite makes was this mixed media artwork. I noticed a maker with a large piece of cardboard and a pile of assorted materials.

I asked, ‘What are you making here?’
She replied, ‘I don’t know, I’m just making it.’

That’s precisely the spirit I love to see in a maker space, and is a glowing example of creative learning in action.


A student asked, ‘Is it ok if I practice piano during Maker Club?’

Yes, it is very ok to make music in Maker Club.


Often, younger makers start with a familiar project, like making a greeting card. The exciting thing is the freedom with which they innovate and iterate. Arts and crafts lessons tend to be more structured, which is of course very effective for developing a particular skill. In Maker Club, we emphasize creativity over specific skill development.


One of the older makers inspired some first graders to decorate plastic bottle caps. Learning from each other and innovating each others’ ideas is an element of social creativity that comes alive in a maker space.


The classroom computers have quick links to various digital maker sites such as Scratch, DIY, and The Hour of Code


Yet another exciting development is makers using our club time to create for projects in their ‘regular’ class. Blurring the boundaries between learning in different settings is one of my driving goals as an educator. In the photo above, a maker begins work on a robot ticket booth for a classroom carnival.

If they start building cardboard ‘robots’, it’s not a huge leap to consider adding mechanical joints, gears, or motors!


Our Maker Club achieved a new level of complexity when a new member resolved to build a guitar. I was hoping that they would inquire into how to make it playable, but they were satisfied with it as is.


Making is messy. That’s part of what makes it fun and what makes the learning that happens in a maker space so authentic and deep. I’ve learned the hard way how important it is to have rather strict clean up procedures.


One rather reluctant maker jumped at the chance to dissect a donated broken DVD player. I suggested to use our camera to take ‘macro’ photos of the innards, and the result was an interesting blend of art and technology.

Starting Year 2

Happily, by adhering to the principles of independence and social creativity, a tremendous amount of positive momentum has accumulated.

Some makers have come and gone, choosing other options for their after school program.

But some have caught maker fever. They need Maker Club.

To express the feeling of this new year of Maker Club, please enjoy this poem:

Maker Fever

Fidget through meetings
sneak to prepare materials
anxious to maximize time.

Don’t ask to ‘use this’ or ‘make that’.
Don’t need permission
in our maker space.

Make things at school,
share them at home.

Make things at home,
share them at school.

Make anywhere;
share everywhere.

Quality increases.

Confidence
Time management
Social interactions
Friendship

Constructed understanding reflected in classwork.

Attention to details
Planning
Resilience
Mindset

We are makers.

We can make anything.

All we need is space, time, and stuff.
(stuff is optional)

We are makers.




SAMR v Smart-Board

In October, the dry-erase whiteboard in my classroom was replaced with a Promethean ActivBoard. The children at school aptly described it as a ‘giant iPad’ as they explored the functions of dragging and dropping with their fingers and writing with the provided styluses.

It was a much anticipated change, and now that I’ve had opportunities to integrate it into my approaches to teaching, this is an ideal opportunity to assess how I’ve utilized it according to the SAMR model of technology integration.

Listening to Richard Wells speak about SAMR on the BAM! Radio podcast, Using the Four Step SAMR Model to Update Your Teaching Practice, was particularly helpful as he emphasizes the SAMR model as a tool for changing one’s mindset toward technology in the classroom.

Substitution

Say goodbye to dry-erase dust!
At first, and with no additional training or time to prepare new activities, I used the ActivBoard as a substitute for a low-tech whiteboard. Although being able to use a myriad of colors and line thicknesses provides more expressive functionality, it could still be accomplished with dry-erase markers, albeit without all the grungy dry-erase dust.

Augmentation

Documentation
After using the ActivBoard as an inkless whiteboard, I realized the potential to save work in a variety of digital formats, including as a ‘flipboard’ that could be opened and edited later or simply as a screenshot for archival purposes. Gone are the days of photographing the whiteboard at the conclusion of a discussion!

Visible thinking
This was particularly useful for KWL charts and other digital visible thinking artifacts. The ActivBoard software can import PDFs to be annotated, a feature we have used effectively for interactively reviewing quizzes. Another interesting application is desktop annotation. During an inquiry into visual literacy, we used this to discuss and make notes on the design and layout of our favorite websites.

Engagement
Thus far, the most noticeable augmentation relates to student engagement. The futuristic appearance of the ActivBoard and its similarity to familiar tablet computers has motivated students to participate more actively in discussions and contribute to visual media created in class.

Modification

Virtual tools
Discovering the capabilities of our ActivBoard revealed many useful features. In particular, the Math Tools enable presentations and demonstrations to be completed with virtual versions of the same tools students are using at their desks.

Digital music
One application that was successful occurred in music class. To introduce a Grade 4 inquiry into digital sequencers, we used the ActivBoard to co-create a piece of music to practice the functions and features of the Online Sequencer.

In the past, I generally introduced new applications by first using a digital projector to make a presentation to outline key features, then providing time for independent or small group exploration. The ActivBoard allowed for a bridge activity between teacher presentation and independent practice that is visually, physically, and socially engaging. It also has a good audio system!

Redefinition

Can the ActivBoard redefine learning?
A common thread running through the discourse on ‘modification’, and my primary goal for technology modification, is student agency. Technology provides unprecedented opportunities to personalize learning and empower learners to take ownership of their learning processes.

To use the ActivBoard to achieve the goal of increasing student agency requires a mindset change with which I am still grappling.

After all, it is still a screen mostly suitable to presentation. Perhaps it can be used to redefine ‘presentation’ into an interactive experience, but that would require an in-depth inquiry into tools beyond the ActivBoard itself. Perhaps those are the exact tools students and I should be learning.

Is there a way to connect learning on the other ubiquitous touch screen devices like iPads with the touch screen ActivBoard? A quick inquiry revealed a post, What Can I Do with an iPad in an ActivBoard Classroom? (Part 1), from the Promethean Planet community blog, and Apple Kills the Interactive Whiteboard with iPad 2.

In both posts, hints of the benefits of iPad/ActivBoard compatibility are mentioned. Evidently, however, those ideas have yet to be realized.

Next steps
My own plans focus on using the ActivBoard to redefine ‘presentation’. As an inquiry teacher, curating and presenting thought-provoking media is critical. Thus far, that seems to be the primary strength of the ActivBoard and the most obvious line of inquiry for me to pursue.

Elementary Digital Music

For the past few weeks, I have enjoyed looking forward to my ‘Music with Computers’ after-school class on Wednesdays, for 2nd through 6th grade students.
It’s a ten week course. During the first five weeks, I introduced various creation tools. The second half is for exploration, experimentation, composition, and creation.
The availability of intuitive, expressive, professional, free sound creation tools is exploding. I’ve enjoyed exploring to find a few of the best to share with students, as well as a few teachers who happened to be in the media center on Wednesday afternoon, and I would like to share them with you!

Synthesizer

 

http://wonderfl.net/c/9Xx7/fullscreen
SiON SoundObject Quartet

SiON SoundObject Quartet is an awesome Flash-based synthesizer and mini-sequencer and was the first tool I introduced. The controls are very inviting and it provides a thorough sampling of different control interfaces being used on professional audio equipment. I especially like the ‘analog’ vocabulary like VCF (Voltage Controlled Filter) and ADSR (Attack Decay Sustain Release). Please enjoy this informative tutorial video on ADSR:

I was lucky to study electronic music with classic analog synthesizers and can confidently say that SiON SoundObject is the next best thing, and significantly easier to use. Students love creating wild sci-fi sounds with this synthesizer!
I learned on a Doepfer. (Nina Richards CC BY 3.0)

Drum Machine

 

One Motion Drum Machine

Drum Machines have become the backbone of popular music. There are two online drum machines I recommend for elementary students, One Motion Drum Machine and Drumbot. One Motion is very easy to use and has good ‘physical’ controls making it perfect for young learners and beginners. It is, however, part of a suite of applications including very distracting games, so students need frequent reminders to get back on task after their ‘game breaks’, although I have observed that the games are well designed for fine-motor and mouse tracking skills. Although Drumbot is a bit trickier to operate, it is much more flexible and mimics current professional controllers like the Dave Smith Instruments Tempest. Patterns can be saved and looped, reorganized, and special effects added and manipulated in many ways. Finally, it allows users to save their creations, which will become a popular feature among my students as they begin producing more music that they want to share with friends and family.

Virtual Studio

Soundation

Soundation is a virtual studio, sequencer, and social network, all in one. As with MuseScore, users create and share their music in a vibrant collaborative community. It is almost identical to professional digital audio recording software like Pro Tools, although simpler and less powerful. Older students have been highly engaged with it from the beginning, and I can’t wait to hear the music they will make as their skills and visions grow.

Play Anywhere

 

All of the links for these tools are kept on a simple Music with Computers wiki, which was emailed to parents after the first session. Evidently, students are visiting the sites at home because they come to class with new tricks to share and I’ve received emails from parents expressing thanks for collecting fun and engaging resources! I hope you enjoy them as well.

Connectivity

I also created a JIES Music account on SoundCloud, to which I plan to upload recordings in the future. I hope to hear more recordings of students’ music there as education and art become more networked and digitally connected.

Pottery Field Trip

My class had an outstanding field trip today, in connection with our unit of inquiry into the effects of changes in science and technology. We recently completed a modeled inquiry into 3D printing, introduced in the post, Modeling Inquiry. Having delved into the future of manufacturing, a visit to Uzumako Ceramic Art School was ideal to provide perspective by experiencing one of the world’s most ancient crafts, pottery.
Student hands dig into wet, spinning clay

My own visceral reaction to wet clay covering my hands, but more importantly the focus and creative energy emitted by students, was all I needed to know this was a deep and invaluable learning experience.

The two ‘creative’ cups on the left were mine…
The teachers at Uzumako were patient and knowledgeable, and fluent in Japanese and English, so it was truly ideal.
For inquiry, experiencing this ancient technology through our hands illustrated a connection to the past that can’t be explained with words. Perhaps that’s a good definition of Deeper Learning, that it can’t adequately be expressed with language.
Students’ impressive creations!
Seeing students with clay-covered hands, satisfied smiles, and creative sparks in their eyes is enough to make the day of any teacher. If you have a chance, I highly recommend visiting your local pottery and ceramics class!

Deeper Learning Student Work

Looking at student work

I’d like to share three pieces of student work, each of which shows unique applications of deeper learning.

Landforms

The first is a Grade 2 ‘landforms’ project. The task was to build and paint an island with landforms. The example shows a few examples of deeper geographical understanding, especially that the river is carved into the land, rather than simply painted on, and that it flows from the hills to the ocean.
However, it would have been better to provide greater opportunities to practice with the clay and paint in a creative way. The student’s reflection, ‘I could to better’, is very revealing of the fact that this little project utilized too many different, new skills. I should have planned a stand-alone art unit using these tools before applying them in this Geography activity.

It’s a great example of how thoughtful planning should authentically scaffold deeper learning, so that when the real tasks of the inquiry present themselves, students have access to a broad range of skills and knowledge.

Additionally, it was connected to a service-learning project focused on access to clean, fresh water, so the students had opportunities to transfer this learning to authentic situations outside of the school.

Fruit and Seeds

Next, also in Grade 2, in an activity to investigate, observe, and compare the seeds of various fruit, a parent volunteer and I sliced twelve different fruits and arranged centers with each around the room. Students used a graphic organizer to explore, draw, compare and discuss.
Is it deeper learning? I can say for certain that the students enjoyed the activity. This example is from a student who generally struggled to complete work, yet he managed to excel in this case. Referring to the Hewlett Foundation’s definition of Deeper Learning, I believe that this is an artifact of deeper learning for a seven-year-old, primarily due to the social, investigative, and integrated arts nature of the activity.
Perhaps it would have been deeper if there were a connection to a significant global issue, had been extended through an exploratory field trip, or led to an urban garden project.

Flying cars?

This final example comes from Grade 6 and our current unit of inquiry into the evolution of scientific understanding and its effects on people’s lives.
After a modeled inquiry into 3D Printing, students were tasked with researching an emerging technology and publish a blog post about it.

This student’s post shows application of a range of research, thinking, and communication skills. In particular, the student demonstrates growing awareness for digital publishing techniques by way of the embedded videos and text organization.

Finally, it is public and invites the reader to participate in the inquiry, which I think is a hallmark feature of deeper learning.

Reflection

Looking at student work, I think it’s important to notice that elements of deeper learning occur in almost every experience. The responsibility lies with, in the case of school, the teacher whose task is to design a learning environment that supports the various elements of deeper learning with balance and flexibility to be relevant to each individual learner.

Modeling Inquiry

In general, I like to classify classroom inquiry activities into three general categories: Independent, Guided, and Modeled.

Independent Inquiry

I have blogged fairly extensively about Independent Inquiry and created a wiki dedicated to supporting interest-driven learning in the classroom. Independent inquiry should be totally independent, in my opinion, not limited to ‘schoolwork’ or ‘homework’, due date free, and without any regulation by authority figures beyond common sense and safety.

Guided Inquiry

Guided Inquiry is what is mostly practiced in schools and provides the richest opportunities to balance autonomy with predetermined curriculum. Differentiation is inherent as learners require varying levels of guidance in various situations. The guided inquiry environment is fluid, productive, and engaging.

Finally, Modeled Inquiry most resembles classical, Socratic education. The teacher has a clear sense of the goal and direction of the learning, and crafts small tasks, like dialogs, in which students participate in order to emphasize learning of the inquiry process.

In my class’ current unit of inquiry, I planned a modeled inquiry into ‘the role of technology in scientific understanding’ and its effects on people’s lives. Feel free to visit the planning document which contains links to the resources we utilized along the way.

Tuning in

Following a standard cycle, I began the inquiry by thinking aloud about ‘science’, ‘technology’, and ‘people’s lives’. I modeled the types of questions that I would typically use to provoke inquiry, and then let myself be provoked. Playing both Socrates and Plato felt strange, but it proved to be an efficient way to make inquiry thinking visible.
My contrived wondering led to a current technology topic: 3D printing. I started my research with a simple Google Search which led to an uncountable number of websites, videos, images, etc. We explore freely, although there were a few resources which I had planned to use in order to drive the inquiry efficiently.

We also watched several informative videos, including Leaders Of The 3D Printing Revolution, which proved to be very stimulating for discussion and led authentically to the primary provocation for the unit:

Will 3D printing change the world?’

After some time to explore independently, the students wrote reflective blog posts to summarize their impressions and identify areas of particular interest to them.

Finding out

Exploring 3D printing led to many areas of interest including fashion accessory design and printed food. However, I wanted to emphasize the importance of gaining background knowledge to inform inquiry. By researching the history of printing, I discovered a wonderful video perfectly suited to this unit, Print Transforming Knowledge.
I also introduced Shapeways, a marketplace for 3D printed products to learn about how people are already using 3D printing to create innovative designs, products, inventions, and works of art.

Sorting Out

Next, it was time to report back about our understandings and especially to draw connections between what we had explored and our curiosities. In my case, I was particularly interested in using 3D printers for medical purposes. In keeping with the intent of this inquiry, I spoke much more than I normally would and felt very awkward doing so. However, using my style of reporting as a model, students communicated more eloquently than they had in previous similar activities, so I sensed that my efforts were successful.

Going Further

To model getting deeper into the inquiry, I introduced Tinkercad, a 3D design application and planned a field trip to a local 3D printing studio, CUBE. I’m excited to see if any students take action to create a design and submit it to be printed!

Conclusion

This experience has taught me that modeled inquiry should be a part of every unit. In this case, we spent about one hour per day for a week, which is significantly more than I had ever dedicated to modeled inquiry before, preferring to guide students when needed but designing units to emphasize independence.

In the future, I think it will be best utilized in the form of mini-lessons embedded in a unit, or even as stand-alone research skills lessons to support more independent inquiry.

Seeing the value of carefully modeling targeted inquiry skills proved to me that, while children are natural inquirers, they benefit greatly from exposure to a variety of strategies and resources. I am excited to see how they apply and transfer what they have learned in future inquiries!